Commentary Magazine


Politics, by Edward I. Koch with William Rauch

Richies & Regulars

Politics.
by Edward I. Koch
With William Rauch. Simon and Schuster. 255 pp. $17.95.

Politics is a rambling, highly personal, and exceedingly funny account of the battles of Edward I. Koch, written by Koch together with his press secretary, William Rauch (who also co-authored their earlier and best-selling Mayor). The story begins with Koch's entry into public life as part of the New York Democratic reform movement of the late 1950's and early 1960's and follows him as he learns, and masters, the art of politics.

After an early defeat in a 1962 bid for the New York State Assembly, Koch ran up a string of victories, moving, in succession, from party leadership to the City Council to Congress. In 1977, on the heels of a dramatic victory over Mario Cuomo in the Democratic primary run-off, Koch became Mayor of the City of New York, the post to which he has twice now been reelected and in which he has achieved national, if not international, fame.

Along the way to his present eminence, Koch came to understand and practice clubhouse politics, ethnic politics, constituent politics, and media politics. He discovered, for instance, that those whom he endorsed did not always consider themselves obliged to return the favor, a lesson driven home by John V. Lindsay who refused to back Koch in his 1968 congressional campaign—indeed, Lindsay endorsed Koch's opponent—notwithstanding the fact that Koch had jumped party lines to support Lindsay for mayor in 1965. Koch also grew to realize that those who had pledged to contribute to his campaigns did not always deliver the promised funds. Most importantly, in the period chronicled here Koch himself underwent something of a political metamorphosis.

Koch's friends and foes over what is now a nearly quarter-century-long public career have been many and varied, but prominent among them have been the two groups he here calls the “richies” and the “regulars.” His disaffection with the former and gradual recognition of the virtues of the latter are at the heart of the political transformation that is detailed in Politics.

The “regulars” are members of the old New York City Democratic organization, epitomized by the legendary party boss, Carmine De-Sapio, and by the name Tammany Hall. It was in a crusade against this organization—and political tradition—that Koch began his political^ career. His allies at the time were the Democratic reformers, many of whom he now dubs “richies”—liberal-to-radical Manhattanites, mainly though not exclusively Jewish. According to Koch today, these are people who want others to “pay their dues.” During the Lindsay administration, for example, they wanted middle-and lower-middle-class Jews in Forest Hills, Queens, to allow a low-income housing project to be built in their neighborhood while the “richies” themselves stayed safely ensconced on Lower Fifth Avenue.

Koch, of course, has had other adversaries—like David Rockefeller of the Chase Manhattan bank, whose criticism of U.S. support for Israel so rankled Congressman Koch that he handed out literature rebuking Rockefeller at subway stations. Still, in this book the theme that predominates is reformers versus regulars—a theme that gives the book the flavor of a political odyssey from Left to Right reminiscent of several other recent autobiographical works.

There is a critical distinction, however: the author of this book is not a New York intellectual but rather a public man who throughout the period in question was seeking and holding elective office. In one sense, this circumstance makes the transformation he recounts more significant—Koch has, after all, been in a position of actual power. But in another sense it makes it less complete. As a politician, Koch must retain the support of diverse constituencies, and this is a fact which encourages “pragmatism” at the expense of ideology. Then, too, the politician is often encumbered by a perceived need to project consistency (although Koch is better than almost anyone else in public life at the simple words, “I've changed my mind”).

_____________

Koch's explanation of how and why he came to dislike his early allies, and to respect his original adversaries, is disarmingly candid:

Now let me tell you about my feelings about reformers and regulars in New York City. I like regulars as human beings better than I do reformers. I like conservatives as human beings better than I do liberals. Philosophically I agree with the reformers more than I do with the regulars and I agree with the liberals more than I do with the conservatives. But as human beings, reformers and liberals care comparatively little about human beings except in the abstract. They love them in the abstract: they just don't like them in the particular.

About one reformer-friend, the one who (with his “marvelous home in the Hamptons”) pronounced that the Jews in Forest Hills ought to “pay their dues,” Koch is positively vituperative:

He didn't care about that poor guy who spends his whole life getting his family to Forest Hills in order to get out of a section of Brooklyn which was falling apart or a slum in the Bronx. He doesn't care that that guy has worked his whole life to give his kids a better life. He doesn't care about that—no. What he cares about is some utopia down the road. That's what reformers and liberals are talking about.

It was this insight into the liberal mentality—and the political sensibility it gave rise to—that led Koch to distinguish himself from other liberals. Calling himself “a liberal with sanity,” he went on record, over time, as opposing affirmative-action quotas, favoring the death penalty, and supporting tuition-tax credits for the parents of children enrolled in parochial schools. In 1981 he went so far as to seek the mayoral nomination on the Republican as well as the Democratic line, and to reject the support of the Liberal party.

The evolution of these views, and of the willingness to express them, required not a little courage on the part of a man who had represented—in his party, in the City Council, and in Congress—the heart of liberalism. And that courage led to a willingness to address the subject of race, even though this meant, inevitably, being labeled a “racist.” In the course of his recent campaign for a third term, Koch was compelled to spend a good deal of undignified time denying this slander, and not just before left-wing demagogues but also to audiences of generally well-meaning voters. To read in this book his account of a 1964 sojourn in Mississippi as a civil-rights lawyer (others have testified to his personal tenacity and actual physical bravery in that period) is to realize just how demeaning and offensive those recent encounters must have been.

To be sure, the charge of racism is sometimes triggered by Koch's own propensity to be impolitic. He has, for instance, described Congressman Ronald Dellums as a Zulu warrior; he has advanced the notion that most blacks are anti-Semitic; and, even in this book, he allows that former Congressman Herman Badillo, having “married two Jewish women . . . [is] no more Puerto Rican than I am.” But the more serious among those who charge Koch with racism generally have something else in mind: Koch's often-stated belief that despite what many black politicians and their white supporters say, the salient factor behind social strife in urban America is not race at all, but class. On this issue Koch is concise, articulate, and true to his mandate as a liberal with sanity: “Those who are obsessed with race, on the Right and on the Left, ignore class as a determinant of social attitudes. They are wrong, and they do an injustice to whites, blacks, and Hispanics.”

Because Politics is, as Koch intends, an introduction to his political philosophy, one wishes that it had fewer moments of unnecessary pettiness. Most of the anecdotes seized upon by the press in the flurry of pre-publication publicity—such as Koch's decision not to reappoint the brother of Comptroller Harrison J. Goldin to the Board of Higher Education, despite the Comptroller's pleas—have little or no bearing on the essential message of this book. More distressing is Koch's likening of a 1969 battle between patrons of a homosexual social club and members of the New York Police Department Vice Squad—an event which has taken on mythic significance in the lore of the homosexual-rights movement—to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But these missteps are very much the exception in what remains a serious and important book by a major figure on the national political scene.

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